On July 3, 1863 Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick recklessly ordered one of his brigade commanders, Brig. Gen. Elon Farnsworth, to attack a Confederate position near the southern end of the Gettysburg battlefield. The ground over which Farnsworth had to traverse was not conducive to mounted operations. It was overgrown with boulders, undulating and crisscrossed by stonewalls. Farnsworth lost his life in the subsequent charge. Eleven days later, a similar scene played out on a ridge overlooking the Potomac River at Falling Waters.
Following his defeat in Pennsylvania, Robert E. Lee began the monumental task of withdrawing his army from Northern soil back to Virginia. Mother Nature helped slow down and delay the retreat. Heavy rains hindered both Lee’s march and the pursuit of Maj. Gen. George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac. The downpours also caused the Potomac River to rise, forcing the Confederates to remain in Maryland until the waters receded. While Lee waited, he instructed his engineers to lay out a defensive line that stretched from Downsville to just above Hagerstown. Two potential fording points, one near Williamsport and another at Falling Waters were also identified. On the evening of July 13, Lee decided the river was passable and set his army in motion.
Early the following morning, Kilpatrick’s division approached Williamsport only to find the Confederates gone. Intelligence soon arrived that enemy infantry was still on the north bank and attempting cross the river several miles away at Falling Waters. Kilpatrick immediately set out in an attempt to cut off the Southerners’ escape.
Brig. Gen. George A. Custer’s brigade led Kilpatrick’s advance. “The march from Williamsport to Falling Waters was a wild ride” wrote James Kidd, an officer in the 6th Michigan Cavalry. “For the whole distance the horses were spurred at a gallop. Kilpatrick was afraid he would not get there in time to overtake the enemy, so he spared neither man nor beast.”
Companies B and F under Maj. Peter Weber of the 6th Michigan rode at the head of the division, followed closely by Custer and Kilpatrick. Upon their approach, Weber reined up in sight of a low ridge. Confederate artillery dotted the high ground, along with infantry from Maj. Gen. Henry Heth’s division of Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill’s Third Corps. Heth had been directed to act as a rear guard while Lt. James Longstreet’s First Corps and rest of Hill’s made their way over the Potomac.
Looking over the enemy position, Custer ordered Weber to dismount and cautiously probe forward with skirmishers. Kilpatrick soon arrived and countermanded Custer’s instructions. He directed Weber to keep his men in the saddle and attack.
A native of Grand Rapids, Michigan, Weber enlisted in the 2nd Michigan Cavalry at the beginning of the war at the age of 20. He soon became a Battalion Adjutant. In June 1862, Weber was appointed an aide-de-camp on the staff of Gordon Granger. Following the organization of the 6th Michigan Cavalry, Weber received a Captain’s commission on September 15, 1862 and was eventually promoted to Major. George Custer described Weber as “gallant” and commended him for his reconnaissance efforts on what became East Cavalry Field at Gettysburg.
Weber obeyed, mounted his squadron and moved up the ridge at a trot. As Weber increased his gait, the Confederates held their fire, believing the approaching horsemen were their own cavalry. By the time they realized their mistake, Weber’s men were up and over their works. The Wolverines slammed into the brigades of Brig. Gen. J.J. Pettigrew and Lt. Col. S.G. Shepard. Much of the ensuing fighting was at close quarters. Pettigrew himself was mortally wounded. Outnumbered, the troopers were eventually forced off the ridge and returned to the Union position. They did so without Major Weber who lay dead inside Heth’s line.
Kilpatrick then ordered Custer to advance the rest of the 6th Michigan. Like Weber, they were also repulsed. Following up on his success, Heth counterattacked but was driven back by recently arrived 1st Michigan along with the 8th New York from Col. William Gamble’s brigade of Brig. Gen. John Buford’s division. The back and forth engagement continued. With the rest of his brigade now on the field, Kilpatrick ordered Custer to launch another attack. This assault steadily drove Heth back toward the pontoon bridge until the remainder of Buford’s division arrived to relieve Kilpatrick. Putting up a stubborn defense, the Confederates were able to keep Buford at bay. Around noon, the last elements of Heth’s division reached the south bank of the river and safety.
Once again, a rash decision by Kilpatrick led to the death of another Union cavalryman. While Kilpatrick rightly believed that the Confederate army was in full retreat, the notion of attacking uphill over open terrain against an entrenched enemy with no idea of the force which opposed him was ill-conceived. Although the loss of Weber was not as significant as Farnsworth, it deprived the 6th Michigan of an experienced and reliable officer. Weber’s services would be sorely missed in the weeks and months to come.